When AI Get’s Personal OR You’re Not Supposed to Talk About That!

A few months ago Microsoft released Seeing AI. This is a tool created by a blind product manager to help blind people. It’s trying to using computer vision to replace lost sight.

The most interesting piece is the person functionality. This is a fairly transparent implementation of Microsoft’s Face API. The Face API has a number of characteristics that it can determine including hair color,  emotion,  glasses, facial hair, makeup, smiling, gender, and age. Computer geeks, take a look at Face API, it’s pretty awesome. Here’s an example of the person functionality from Seeing.ai using the Face API.

Microsoft’s Seeing AI

It’s a great party trick to show your friends how AI can figure out all this stuff. The most interesting characteristic is age. Microsoft thinks so too and created an entire website called how-old.net.

So I started bringing it out at parties. But there was the problem. People who skewed older than they really were started saying “Hey, that’s not cool.” I started to realize that the app didn’t have a lot of tact.

It was like a little kid saying, “Mommy, that lady looks 45.”

And the woman saying back, “My Lord! Don’t you have any manners!”

This is similar to a scene in the Netflix series Atypical about Sam, a character with Autism Spectrum Disorder (formerly called Aspergers Syndrome). Sam doesn’t read emotions very well and is often too honest — not taking into account other people’s feelings.

At one point Sam made a list of the Pro’s and Con’s of Paige, his prospective girlfriend. Paige found an imprint of the list and used a pencil to read it.

Paige with Sam’s list of Pro’s and Cons about her.

To paraphrase their conversation:

“Why would you do that? You called me bossy and said I’m always interrupting people,” said Paige.

“But I also said that you had very clean shoes and had a nice neutral smell. So there were some good things in there,” said Sam.

“Ugh. You’re just not supposed to write that stuff down. It’s rude.”

And that’s the inherent problem with the way Face API displays people’s age. Making these things too transparent is just rude.

From all this, I’ve learned 3 things.

  1. It’s kind of creepy how AI can take things from the real world and “know” things about you.
  2. When building a computer program, features like “age” are useful in doing things like matching or making predictions but should generally be hidden from the end user.
  3. It’s much better to use this data for a different purpose, like figuring out which piece of artwork you look like.

Update August 16, 2018: Amazon’s Face API is a lot more sensitive in its demo. It uses the word “seems” and not focusing on a specific age but using an age range.

AWS Face API Demo